The video essay

What is a video essay?

A video essay – like a written essay – develops an argument on a defined topic, working as a kind of argument, explanation, discussion. The topic will have been either given to you (e.g. as a set essay question) or developed by you in negotiation with your tutor.

The video essay is linear, time-based, and requires a complex interplay of developing ideas and gathered material. It uses:

  • moving image visual elements;
  • spoken word commentary and/or caption cards, subtitles, etc.

A video essay is not a simple collage or montage of material. It works partly by juxtaposition, by placing images in sequence and using them as ‘reveals’, but it is also structured by a ‘presence’ and ‘intervening consciousness’ – an essay author, in other words – that directs the viewer’s attention and takes them on a thought-provoking journey.

In short, a video essay is a kind of persuasive storytelling, presenting a viewpoint and the evidence for it, telling a convincing story about it. To be done well, it needs to be:

  • planned in detail;
  • fully documented;
  • scripted;
  • storyboarded

Do not just present a random sequence of materials which vaguely refer to a topic: that is not a video essay and is a sure route to assignment failure.

And overview of the process

A video essay uses ‘footage’ sourced from libraries, archives, or other
collections (BoB: Box of Broadcasts, YouTube, ted: torrent episode downloader, etc.) which is carefully selected and edited, and which:

  • incorporates ‘talking head’ sections where the author (or others) speak to the camera in original shots made for the purpose;
  • uses captions, subtitles and/or other on-screen text to comment on images, to add to them, to subvert them;
  • incorporates panning, tracking over, or zooming in and out of static images to reveal detail;
  • uses transitions to manage time, maintain interest and interconnect the extracts, excerpts and commentaries.

In many ways a video essay is a semi-documentary form and requires many of the same kind of strategies. It means identifying a topic and gathering material, working with that material to develop, refine and understand the idea more fully, working from a clear vision of how the final sequence will be.

This is no mean task and should certainly never be seen as an ‘easy option’ in comparison to traditional essay work.

How long should a video essay be?

This is a bit of a ‘how long is a piece of string’ question and there is no hard and fast answer. However, it is worth thinking about the following:

  • Many students who attempt the video essay format are unrealistic in their ambitions, proposing pieces of work which are an hour in length, or even longer. Be sensible: to produce an effective video essay of even a few minutes requires a considerable amount of work. The aim is not to make a feature film.
  • A 10 minute video essay that is sharp, focused, stylish, and well crafted is far better than a 60 minute video essay that is loose, vague, obvious and thrown together.

So, in relation to a traditional written essay, the following might offer an idea of expected equivalent length:

  • for a 1500-2000 word essay, think in terms of a video essay of 8-10 minutes in length
  • for a 2000-2500 word essay, think in terms of a video essay of 10-15 minutes in length
  • for a 4000-6000 word essay, think in terms of a video essay of 15-20 minutes in length

Of course, these are only guidelines, and in each case you would also need to submit appropriate supporting documentation, including scripts, storyboards, research folder, and assets list/bibliography (see below).

Storyboarding: essential for a successful outcome

A video essay requires conceptual thinking and organization, record keeping, documentation. To this end it needs some sort of storyboarding as an integral part of shaping ideas and materials. Effective storyboarding underpins the conceptual planning and the creative realisation of the video essay.

At its simplest a storyboard is a way of working with time-based sequences ‘off-line’ in either a conceptual, inventive state, dreaming up the sequence, or in a tighter, more organised, planning state to control resources, pre-visualise outcomes, identify and solve problems before they arise. Working ‘off-line’ like this is both cheaper and clearer than trying to work direct to the machine.

Storyboards are used extensively in the media industries to communicate and share ideas. They enable the invention and planning of things which are inherently visual, and they enable groups to work together to a shared end. They are also used analytically, as a tool for developing an understanding of, say, the customer experience, or as a way of identifying key parts of a flow or sequence.

There are three stages of storyboard which play a key role in developing a video essay:

Stage 1

The first (see figure 1) provides a quick overview or outline: it is sketchy and easily changed or discarded. It might be very untidy and – to those other than yourself – hard to read. It is still extremely valuable documentation.

video_essay_Fig1-11

Figure 1: Stage 1 storyboard: sketchy at this stage, and perhaps only you can read it… but it’s good enough to talk through ideas with a tutor at an early tutorial

Stage 2

The second (see figure 2) is concerned with ‘managing assets’. It involves timing any existing video sections and building them in to the video essay sequence. The storyboard now includes a clearer and finer grain of time, and it is accompanied by an asset list which shows the filename, start- and end-point (from time code), etc., of all materials to be used. You will also be identifying ‘gaps’ in the assets – and looking for material that will fill those gaps.

video_essay_Fig2

Figure 2: Stage 2 storyboard: much clearer now, more detailed, and the kind of plan that shows confidence, knowledge, a distinct way forward

Stage 3

The third is a production list ready for the editing sequence, acting as a checklist of media assets, with commentaries about edit transitions, timing, and so on. This final storyboard may ‘steal’ screen dumps from the materials and is worked up to a visual ‘look’n’feel’ condition. It might even exist as a semi-animated sequence that checks out timing and related issues (in animation this would be called an animatic, here it may be a mock-up in Powerpoint) bur it is still not ‘carved in stone’. The storyboard is a guide to intentions rather than a finished instruction list.

Sourcing the Video Essay

Accompanying the Stage 3 storyboard is a complete asset list. This is effectively a Bibliography and should be thought of as such. It should use the Harvard or Author-Date system and will include some ‘rejected’ material (with reasons for rejection) as well as material used.

Some examples

There are some fascinating experiments in the video essay format on the blog hosting website Tumblr:

Some other examples worth looking at include:

  • HuesForAlice (2007) ‘The Big Brother State’. YouTube. Available at:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJTLL1UjvfU&feature=autoplay&list=PL72CC64E20549FE72&index=21&playnext=1 [accessed 21 July 2016]
  • mwesch (2007) ‘The Machine is Us/ing Us (Final Version)’. YouTube. Available at:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6gmP4nk0EOE&feature=view_all&list=PL72CC64E20549FE72&index=1 [accessed 21 July 2016]

Suggested further reading

  • Biemann, U. (2003) Stuff It: the Video Essay in the Digital Age. Dusseldort: Springer Verlag.
  • Faden, E. (2009) ‘A Manifesto For Critical Media’. Mediascape: UCLA’s Journal of Cinema and Media Studies. (Fall) Available at: http://www.tft.ucla.edu/mediascape/Spring08_ManifestoForCriticalMedia.html [accessed 21 July 2016]
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